Continuing our Halloween Hammer Horror exploration with a look at one of the company’s lesser-known titles from their early ventures into the gothic.
Made in 1958, right in the middle of Hammer’s first great period of gothic horror, The Man Who Could Cheat Death has always felt like a bit of an oddity. It appeared smack in the middle of the Frankenstein, Dracula and Mummy (and Sherlock Holmes) films that were all based on well-established and beloved source material, and it appeared some years before the company regularly branched out into more original material. Not that the film is an original piece. It’s a remake of the 1945 movie The Man In Half Moon Street, itself based on a play by Barre Lyndon, which was a slightly classier than usual entry in the ‘mad doctor finds the formula for eternal life’ story that was, even then, a bit old hat.
Given that it was produced by Hammer for Paramount Pictures, it’s surprising that the company didn’t go for the more renowned horror classic titles that their US backers had previously made – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the obvious choice, while The Portrait of Dorian Gray was also an option. Perhaps, as both of those stories were public domain by 1958, there was no need to secure remake rights (Hammer would, of course, make a handful of Dr Jekyll variants over the years). Instead, they went with this relatively unknown film – hardly a classic of great repute – which actually features elements of both the Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson stories – the mad doctor (complete with smoky potion) and the quest for eternal youth – or life, in this case.
The film is written and directed by established Hammer team Jimmy Sangster and Terence Fisher, but their already-established star Peter Cushing is absent. The film was clearly written with Cushing in mind, and indeed he initially signed up for the role before dropping out at the last minute, to be replaced by Anton Diffring, here making the first of several horror movie appearances. Diffring was a solid actor and an efficient horror movie villain – as movies like Circus of Horrors would later show – but he’s a poor replacement for Cushing in a part that was clearly crafted for the Hammer regular and it is impossible to stop making the metal comparison throughout the film. Christopher Lee is, once again reduced to a supporting role, playing the film’s ostensible hero – despite playing Dracula the same year, it’s clear that Hammer still didn’t see Lee as either a leading man or an effective villain at this point, and although he and Cushing were already becoming established as a horror duo, much like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Lee was still considered to be the lesser of the two stars.
Diffring plays Georges Bonnet, a doctor and sculptor who seems to have it all – a successful practice full of rich patients and sexy young models at his beck and call, including Janine Dubois (Hazel Court) who turns up at the unveiling of his latest work and who is clearly keen to rekindle a former relationship with Bonnet, despite being accompanied by Pierre Gerard (Lee) – admittedly, Gerard is so stiff and humourless, it’s easy to see why she might go for the more convivial and exotic Bonnet. But the doctor has a dark secret – a need to take a mysterious potion every six hours, with the failure to do so having dire results, as we see when he is delayed by jealous lover Margo (Delphi Lawrence). Unfortunately, the rather poor make-up has him simply turning green and developing bags under his eyes, which is less terrifying than laughable and makes him look more like someone suffering from a touch of food poisoning. Nevertheless, his touch causes Margo’s flesh to burn, for reasons that the film never really explains.
Bonnet is impatiently awaiting the arrival of elderly surgeon Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marie), and it is here that his secret is revealed at great length. As Marie and Diffring both overact vigorously in a scene that goes on far too long, seemingly egging each other on, we discover that Bonnet is in fact 104 years old, kept young through ten-yearly parathyroid gland transplants. But Weiss is having second thoughts about the morality of such an operation, especially as it seems that Bonnet has been extracting the all-important gland from unwilling live donors. Sangster’s mad doctor films seemed to have a running theme of assistants who suddenly get a touch of the high and mighty – The Curse of Frankenstein did likewise with the pompous and frankly appalling ‘hero’ Paul Krempe, whose sudden moralising is arguably why Frankenstein’s experiment wasn’t a success. Perhaps these characters get a dose of religion off-screen or something. Weiss’ moral doubts have more legitimacy – Bonnet is, after all, killing to stay alive – but you do wonder what he had turned a blind eye to in the past before decided in his twilight years to make his peace with God. Of course, having lived this long, Bonnet is not about to give up on his life without a fight and is equally determined to share his immortality with the unsuspecting Janine so that she can accompany him through eternity. Whether or not she wants to neither here nor there.
Terence Fisher is a beloved figure amongst Hammer fans, and so I’m probably going to rattle a few cages when I say that he was essentially a solid, workmanlike director who was only as good as those around him made him look. Certainly, Fisher’s horror films are not the work of an auteur. They look impressive because of the Hammer production crew as much as his direction and most of the films benefit from solid performances from actors who don’t seem to consider the material beneath them. Hammer’s films look stylish and classy compared to both the films that came before in the genre and the work of many of their rivals, but I’m not sure that they ever develop the sense of atmosphere that, say, Mario Bava’s work has. As we can see when we look at Fisher’s movies for other companies, or for that matter, his lesser works for Hammer including the likes of Four-Sided Triangle, he was efficient rather than visionary – and could not make a great film from a poor screenplay. There’s a good argument to be made that Sangster has as much – if not more – responsibility for the feel of the early Hammer gothic as Fisher. To take a more conciliatory stance, perhaps we might say that Fisher and Sangster made a great team, having a creative connection that brought out the best in both of them, making their films something more than they might have been had either been partnered with someone else. Like the best rock bands, the sum of the parts is better than the individual talents.
In any case, The Man Who Could Cheat Death is certainly one of the pair’s weaker efforts. While more lurid and lively than the rather staid source material (a film as gripping as the rather limp title implies), it nevertheless lacks the rip-roaring action and sense of dynamism that they brought to their other films of the period, only really coming to life in the final moments. Too much of the film is dialogue-driven – a curse for this sort of material, and perhaps a throwback to its theatrical roots. And it’s here that we most miss Cushing, as Diffring feels rather stiff and makes his monster a little too one dimensional – Cushing might have brought a tortured intensity to the role that would help make it more involving, but Diffring is simply cold and distant for the most part. ironically, Christopher Lee – who is entirely wasted here as a jealous love rival for Bonnet – would have made a much more impressive villain and probably could have given the character the sense of aloof arrogance that Diffring tries for but doesn’t quite achieve. As it is, Lee here occupies the role normally reserved for the throwaway heroes of horror films – vital to the downfall of the villain, perhaps, but limp and forgettable. What a shame.
The best performer in the film is Hazel Court, who – as usual in such films – is not given much to do beyond being the object of desire and an eventual damsel in distress, but nevertheless does a great job in making Janine well rounded and a touch morally ambiguous, playing two suitors off against each other for her own amusement. Famously, she shot a topless scene for the European version of the film. This was daring stuff for a lead actress to do in 1959 – while ‘continental versions’ of British films featuring bare breasts were often made at this time, the nudity was usually provided by glamour models and strippers. Of course, for years Hammer – and the Hammer experts – would indignantly deny that the company ever shot additional scenes of gore or nudity for international markets, a sort of tutting denial that – alongside the curious habit of making BBFC-mandated cuts to the negative and not keeping an intact copy – meant that many of these scenes have been lost. There are stills of the topless scene from this film, but the actual footage has yet to turn up and be reinstated into a print. Given the fact that Hammer fans have managed to find fault with almost every new Blu-ray edition of the classic titles so far released, perhaps distributors and Hammer itself have decided that finding and remastering this scene just isn’t worth the effort.
This is second-division Hammer -perhaps the first of their horror movies to be a minor production. But there is much to enjoy here regardless. The music score, by Richard Bennett, is far removed from the pomp of James Bernard, instead being subtle and almost non-existent during the opening titles and the film never becomes dull. At its best, the film offers an effective twist on the mad doctor story, and it looks as handsome and lush as any other Hammer film of the period. Time, if anything, has been kind to the movie; while the special effects have dated badly – and perhaps were not all that even at the time – the film now benefits from being able to be seen out of the context of the period in which it was made and the missed opportunities of the casting, and proves to be a solid and, for the most part, entertaining production. It’s hardly peak Hammer, but there is no need for it to be. In its own modest way, The Man Who Could Cheat Death is a success.
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